Our very own Greg in Mexico asked a question a while back that I'd been remiss in answering. He's reading a book called "The Forever War" by Dexter Filkins, and he wonders if thoughts like this ever cross my mind while above the cities and villages of Iraq.
The Black Hawk skirted the date palms and the mud-colored roofs, the altitude and the movement of the helicopter offering a cubist view of the world below. Green rectangles of farmland shifted as if in a mirror then flattened as they fell into the horizon. The anarchy of the streets carried no sound so high; every haphazardness of the place, the trash, the goats, the fields of junk, seemed, from the distance, planned and carefully measured, like a city by L'Enfant. A farmer stopped his work, cupped his hand over his eyes and waved. Under the spell of the whirring motor I felt suddenly hopeful for the country below. I looked down at the tiny people and imagined them going about their days just as any of us would up here, with fears and desires no greater or lesser than our own, or which, in any case, were not so different that they couldn't be reconciled. It was useful to fly in helicopters for this reason, I thought to myself, useful to think this way, to take a wider view of the world. Too much detail, too much death, clouded the mind.
Well, yes and no. In many ways, being above the cities takes away the death and the details--but that means I don't really get exposed to them in the first place.
For example, in January, I was over some city or another, and, as the tiny buildings zipped underneath the chin bubble of the aircraft, I noticed a number of them streaked with little red banners, fluttering in the wind. From an aviator's perspective, the only thing significant about a number of flags was that they were often a great indicator of the prevailing winds. However, the sheer number of the flags was puzzling—I'd never seen that many being flown before, particularly over this city. One of our passengers was linked into our cockpit channel via a headset, and we asked him about the significance of the streamers on the rooftops.
"Those represent the colors of Ashura [literally, Arabic for "the tenth", which refers to 10 October in the 7th Century CE], which represent the murder of the third Imam of Islam, Husayn ibn Ali. For the Sunni and the Shia, particularly, it's a mournful event. The red streamers symbolize the Imam's blood, so many Muslims often mark the day with self-flagellation."
It was curious. Had I not asked the question, the little flags would have only been a mild curiosity, and the sheer emotion behind Ashura would have been lost on me. Ashura has been a date of considerable significance for many Muslims in Iraq, and it was on the day of Ashura in 2004 where a massive attack on Shia pilgrims took place, killing over 180 Shia, and wounding over 500. From the air, even at low levels, we were so far removed from the issues—both the significant issues and the petty issues—over which the people below were blowing themselves up senselessly over.